Thursday, February 09, 2006

Cultural Misunderstanding

I was waiting for the bus with my dad a few days ago on a cold Chengdu evening when Terry called from Beijing. After exchanging some greetings, she said I have a cultural question for you. I cringed in silence – please not another question about how to exchange business cards in China.

Terry is a friend of a friend from the US. She had just finished her MBA degree and decided to brave the new Wild Wild East – China. Starry-eyed but knowing little about the Chinese language and culture, she’s having some great difficulty adjusting to life in Beijing. So I fully expected a quick Chinese Culture 101 with her over the phone.

“The situation is like this,” she started in her cheerful yet restrained New York accent. “I’ve been in touch with this Chinese guy who owns a trading firm. He was introduced to me by an old colleague of mine. I was hoping to someday get a job from him, which would be ideal.”

Ok, I said. The pay probably would suck big time though, I contemplated to myself.

“So we’ve been hanging out. He invited me to dinner a couple of times. I didn’t worry at all because he’s married with two kids. Last night he invited me to go to a massage parlor with him, which I thought a little weird. But he said that in China people talked about business all the time at massage places. Is that true?”

That’s true, I told her. All my male business friends do that. Is this the cultural question she’s asking?

“No no,” she replied. “There’s more. The massage place was actually cool. Upscale. There’s buffet dinner. People walked around in their bathrobes. There were even mah-jong and cigar rooms. He got a nice room with two beds for us. We both got massages.”

All sounded fine then.

“Here’s the problem,” she said. “After we were done, the masseurs left discreetly. Then he came over to my bed and tried to kiss me! I pushed him away. I felt so awful. He has a wife at home with two teenage girls. My question is – is it culturally ok for a single woman to hang out with a married man in China? Did I mislead him in agreeing on having dinner with him?”

I started laughing. People at the bus stop stared at me. I explained to her that as far as I knew, contrary to the stereotype of Chinese loving and respecting their families, successful married Chinese men loved massage parlors and mistresses. You didn’t mislead him; he misled himself, I assured her.

I laughed at the irony of Chinese still believing that Americans have loose morals and are always ready for casual sex, like in Sex And The City and Desperate Housewives.

“But I felt awful. Think about the wife and two kids!” She didn’t buy into my casual rationalizing. I laughed even harder. This is not America, Terry, where affairs are guilt-ridden and hush-hush. This is the China you came for, the Wild Wild East. I suggested that she talk to the guy, if only to relieve her own guilt.

“I did,” Terry responded immediately. “But he refused to talk about it. I told him that I hoped this ‘incident’ wouldn’t impair our friendship and possible future professional relationship. He just kept silent. In the end, he mumbled that it’s all a ‘cultural misunderstanding’. Am I missing something cultural here?”

How would I know Terry? This is a country I only half understand, I said. What is merely in flux and what’s essentially Chinese? And when does a cultural difference become a moral difference, and vice versa?

These are all interesting, if trivial, questions Terry. I said to her while still laughing, under the cold stare of the others still waiting at the bus stop.


hcpen 彭皓全 said...

I think your friend should have been smart enough to know that massages are inappropriate. You forgot to tell her a CRUCIAL difference in terms of your male business friends also visiting massage parlours, that being they are male, NOT female. It is appropriate to visit a massage parlour for two males (given nothings gonna happen...well unless one of them turns out to be gay!) but totally not a cultural misunderstanding and inappropriate when it comes to people of the opposite sex. I however agree with u about affairs being more socially tolerated in China as compared to in America where its all hush hush..

Beijing Loafer said...

I guess you are right, but I didn't have enough experience with massages to know. Wouldn't there be co-ed massages visited by couples?

hcpen 彭皓全 said...

As far as i know, massages in asia are never pure (well almost never) which is why in places like Taiwan, signboards always state that they are 'pure' massage places if they want to attract female customers also...anyways a man and a woman not in a romantic relationship would simply not visit massage parlours, pure or otherwise.

Michael W. said...

Very funny! Reminds me of how all the staff at Beijing Weekend were so shocked (and disappointed?) when I told them that western men did not routinely sleep with "whores" (their word) before their wedding night ie on bucks/stag night. This is a group of highly intelligent, well educated and well travelled Chinese who still beleive the cliches that western = bad morals.

Aorijia said...

I do think your friend was a little bit naive. Of course, there are cultural differences, but there's also common sense to help us deal with them.

Beijing Loafer said...

Ok. I admit she was. One thing I didn't get to work into the story - at the end of the call she revealed to me that she's a lesbian, which came as a shock to me. Perhaps that could have explained it.

Anonymous said...

I disagree that affairs are more tolerated in China, as you so cavalierly suggested. I should first say that I am not Chinese, but first studied then lived there as an expat for many years. Affairs... they might be as prevalent among women, but tolerated? Certainly you don't think that adulterous women would be judged the same way, given that its usually only men having affairs in China that are winked at by the oh-so-machista as they saunter around the KTV's and "massage" parlors full of uneducated, disenfranchised girls from the countryside, risking STD's - and worse - for the entertainment of horndogs who bring the clap home to their wives. Mate, you've been in America so long youve picked up that American disdain for others who aren't so fortunate that they can declare - with an affected and saucy disdain for the trifles of such as "work" - that they choose "loafing" as a pursuit.

The man who doesn't come home at night because he is with his mistress, kind of an expected happening... or at least it seemed to me during my years in China. The woman who doesn't come home has run off, abandoned her family, and would be shamed. Surely none of this is news to you????

What does her being a lesbian have to do with anything? Sounds like you want to suggest that such a person might invite such behavior, and that this oafish man - China's boardrooms seem to be full of them - could sense it? Get over yourself.

Loafing is fine as a self-congratulatory middle class puruit, but intellectual loafing, thats just plain tacky.

Anonymous said...

I agree with hcpen, massage parlor is inappropriate. Normally I consider a single female with another male without the presence of a third female, is dangerous situation. I do not know how the Chinese functions, but I do know in Taiwan, these kind of story is not uncommon. Sometimes, I even consider the Taiwanese are more "loose" compare to the American.

Anonymous said...

Business in Asia depends on relationships i.e. guanxi, be it professional or otherwise. There was an expectation that your friend would scratch his back so to speak.

Anonymous said...

Reading your article I wondered if there is any place in the world where working collegues of the opposite sex meet at a massage parlor for business reasons. I think in your friends case it was rather a lack of communication than cultural misunderstanding. In short, if she had talked about her doubts beforehand she could have avoided this embarrassing situation.